Social Networking for the IT Set: Will Marketers Bite?

Since the early days of Usenet, IT professionals have swapped smarts, reviewed equipment, tracked down resources and landed gigs via the Internet. They’ve participated, essentially, in a bare bones version of the social networking phenomenon that’s been popularized across the Web. Now IT news and community sites are placing more and more emphasis on social networking and user-generated content. However, despite the communal history of the IT fellowship, not everyone agrees that there’s a place for a MySpace in the technology business world, or that advertisers need to be there.

“The IT creature is an interesting animal,” observed Stephen Howard-Sarin, VP business technology portfolio at CNET, publisher of IT resource and community site TechRepublic. “It likes to share information; it likes to share war stories.”

Lewis C has 14 years of SQL experience and digs sci-fi and programming books. Among his ITtoolbox “Connections” is Locutus, a systems administrator from Turkey who’s pictured on his profile page peering up from behind a sequined New Year’s Eve mask. They’re both site members with profiles featured in the ITtoolbox Community Hub, a recently-launched extension of the ITtoolbox.com’s community offerings.

When visiting their profile pages, the site’s 1.5 million registrants post to blogs, join topic-based groups and check up on recent postings from their Connections, the site’s version of MySpace friends.

The “MySpace for IT geeks,” as Chris Boylan, manager of Internet marketing for Information Builders, calls it, “will add value….It’s one place [users] can go to see everything they’re involved in.” The B-to-B software firm has paid the site to distribute and promote its white papers and Webcasts for about three or four years, mainly for lead generation purposes. The company conducts similar campaigns on tech resource sites TechTarget and KnowledgeStorm.

Online social networking for IT “is going to facilitate a lot more knowledge-sharing between [users] since people will be more familiar with eachother,” believes ITtoolbox co-founder and President George Krautzel. When presented in a “professional sense,” he contended, people will use networking sites like his “for real value and knowledge exchange.” This, he suggested, will translate to real value for advertisers who reach out to them there.

“I’m hoping it allows them to build up more specialized content so we can [better target] our assets,” said Boylan.

Ad Flow Integration

Oracle recently sponsored a blog written by one of ITtoolbox’s 220 blog authors who took requests from users about what he should discuss there. “If you look at the IT community, the advertisers are a part of that community,” suggested Krautzel, who named HP, Microsoft, IBM, Symantec and Accenture among recent advertisers on the site, which mainly features user-generated content.

The publisher targets display ads based on keywords in user posts, and sends e-mails on behalf of advertisers that can be targeted to users’ industry, title, company size, geography, and other criteria. In October, an advertiser will sponsor a wiki designed to establish best practices for IT purchasing.

“We’re looking for ways to continue to allow the advertiser to place their brand inside the community…as opposed to just pushing a message on people,” noted Krautzel. In the future, that may mean allowing advertisers to create their own profile pages in the same way Facebook lets advertisers pay to set up groups.

“Social forums hosted by various IT companies [would be] a good place to generate buzz about upcoming features, by providing their audience with previews before products are launched,” commented JupiterResearch analyst Emily Riley, who studies social marketing.

Webcast and white paper sponsorships for branding and lead generation are standard advertising fare on many community-focused IT sites. CNET’s TechRepublic hosts companies’ white papers at no cost to them, or allows them to pay to have their papers promoted on the site, in which case pre-download user registration information is handed over to the advertiser.

TechRepublic introduced discussion forums and short member profiles as far back as ’99, and added features like social bookmarking, tagging and blogging last year. Members can be matched to others searching for people with expertise in certain fields, and can keep up with recent updates from other members by adding them to their contacts list.

The publisher plans to unveil a “Townhall” site section next month, in conjunction with a re-launch. Like its other offerings, the content will be free to users — and perhaps more interestingly — to advertisers, who will be able to host a weeklong discussion driven by their own technology experts. The offering will be free to advertisers “because we think it enriches the conversation,” explained CNET’s Howard-Sarin. Unlike paid TechRepublic promotions, though, advertisers participating in the online forum will not be guaranteed a certain amount of downloads or leads.

“Just having people on your site is not as good as having people really engaged with one another,” stressed Howard-Sarin. “The next step of conversation is how do vendors participate in that interaction.” Microsoft, Intel, Symantec and IBM are among the site’s advertisers.

Running the Serious Script

TechTarget, a network of 35 niche IT sites, such as Bitpipe.com and SearchStorage.com, gets the largest portion of its ad revenue from advertisers that pay to post their white papers. Webcast, podcast and e-mail newsletter sponsorships as well as e-mail list rentals and site ads also garner ad dollars.

The seven-year-old publication offers discussion forums, expert-written blogs and other articles by 100 full-time reporters and editors. It also lets users fill out profiles that are searchable through its “IT Knowledge Exchange,” where users post questions to people who fit into specific categories.

Though the network enables connections among its four million registered members, TechTarget CEO Greg Strakosch said it won’t be building out its social networking features to include MySpace-style profiles any time soon. “In the B-to-B marketplace our audience isn’t telling us they want that type of stuff,” he observed. “A Facebook for IT pros — that’s not our business… Our business is very serious,” continued Strakosch, who believes TechTarget users coming to the site for work purposes would view profiles, user blogs and typical consumer-aimed community site features as “frivolous.”

“That’s a hypothesis that many people have in this marketplace,” affirmed Virginia Hines, VP and GM at IDG’s Infoworld.com, a site featuring mostly professional editorial content that began offering its IT Exec Connect community features to all site users in May. “The conventional wisdom that people want to have a real bright line between their business and personal life online — I think that’s false,” she opined.

At this point, the small community of 6,000 registrants can be matched to and communicate with other members who have submitted in-depth personal and professional information, in addition to joining forums and live chats. Hines anticipates adding MySpace-style profile and networking capabilities once the site’s community platform vendor, Leverage Software, makes such functionality available.

New Marketing Domain

Hines expects the new social networking tools to help boost site traffic and time spent on Infoworld.com. She claimed the Exec Connect area garners three to four times the number of page views per visit than other site areas. Yet, initially she was skeptical as well. For instance, she originally assumed users wouldn’t be interested in including photos in their profiles. Now she’s found lots of members use the feature.

“It drives user engagement, and user engagement, for us, drives page views,” said Hines. That in turn translates to benefits for advertisers, she concluded. “People who are engaged in this are willing to give up much more personal information…. It almost bridges the gap between impression-based advertising and lead generation.”

B-to-B networking sites like LinkedIn, commented Hines, are too horizontal and career-focused to be worthwhile to tech professionals looking for specialized information, or for advertisers trying to target niche IT audiences.

Once community members hit critical mass, Hines hopes the new site tools create high-value section sponsorship and ad opportunities, as well as spur users to create content that can be rolled out to other areas of the site.

“A purely social site for IT professionals probably isn’t necessary at this point,” concluded JupiterResearch analyst Emily Riley. Instead, she thinks, “Software companies actually do have an opportunity here to engage loyal programmers or hardware guys by providing social sites such as blogs and forums within their own site.”

Technology firms like Macromedia and Microsoft took this tack a few years ago by creating blog communities for their software users. Still, there’s something to be said for a singular social space that isn’t affiliated with any one company where professionals can share information and build relationships with peers.

“It’s a challenge for marketers to really participate” in online communities, suggested CNET’s Howard-Sarin. “Everybody understands the value of showing the human face… but there’s a risk aversion and inertia inside a lot of companies that keeps them from letting their experts out.”

If the trend towards robust online social networking and user-generated content on IT sites continues, they may have no choice but to take that risk.

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